Since establishing its first U.S. location in Providence in Feb. 2018, Shiru Cafe has yet to secure any corporate sponsors for its operations in the United States. Even without sponsors and the revenue sponsorships would provide, Shiru Cafe continues to expand domestically — opening its doors at Amherst College yesterday and preparing to establish cafes at Yale and Princeton.
Shiru, which in Japanese means “to know,” operates under a business model wherein students list their contact information, majors, skills and career interests in exchange for free coffee. The cafe’s mission is “to create a place where students can learn about the professional world and envision their careers,” according to the company’s website. It hopes to bring locations to “the top (universities) in the world,” wrote Shiru Cafe CEO Yusuke Kakimoto in an email to The Herald, adding that his next target locations in the United States are Harvard, Columbia and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The parent company Enrission founded the Shiru cafe chain in Kyoto, Japan in 2013. In addition to 17 cafes in Japan, Shiru operates 28 cafes worldwide, according to its website. While the cafes in Japan tend to have over 180 corporate sponsors, Shiru cafes in America have yet to form partnerships with any corporations, according to General Manager at Enrission and Cafe Manager at Brown’s Shiru Cafe Keith Maher.
As part of fortified efforts to create ties with U.S. sponsors, Enrission brought on Vice President of Client Development and Strategy for Shiru in the U.S. Isabel Strobing in October 2018. Her job is to establish relationships between Shiru and potential sponsors by partnering “with companies looking to innovate their recruitment strategies,” according to her position description on LinkedIn. “We really want to provide students all over the country with these different opportunities and … learn more about industries or types of companies they might not know about,” she said.
Though Providence’s Shiru Cafe generates some revenue through selling pastries, its offerings to University students of free coffee in house and $1 coffee to go necessitate funding by its parent company Enrission, Maher said. “The rest of the equation is kind of still coming together” for the cafe’s American financial model, Strobing added.
For the past 10 months, the cafe has been focused on preparing to partner with sponsors, which requires addressing “logistical issues” including “real estate and getting the cafe up and running,” Strobing explained.
Enrission maintains close involvement in oversight of U.S. cafes as they are “always in contact with the CEO in Japan,” Maher said. Strobing described Enrission as “very well integrated” into the Providence cafe and cited “support and training” provided by Enrission.
Even with close oversight, “everything and nothing is the norm,” as Enrission allows Shiru in Providence enough autonomy to explore the best strategies for succeeding in the new and different U.S. market, Strobing added.
The company is still “definitely very early in the stages of developing those relationships and sponsorships,” Maher said.
“We’re getting ready to welcome sponsors soon,” Kakimoto wrote. The company may establish ties with its first sponsors as early as next semester, and Strobing said it was feasible that they may be brought on board as early as January. Shiru Cafe has initiated contact with some companies, while others have reached out to the cafe themselves. More companies have reached out to Shiru as the cafe has attracted more attention through media, Strobing said.
Shiru Cafe is interested in partnering with companies of varying structures and scale for its U.S. operations, from larger, well-established multinational corporations to startups, Strobing explained. She reaches out to companies on behalf of the cafe and has “seen interest from all different types of companies,” she said.
The cafe will select sponsors using the data it gathers in the survey required for students to get free coffee — noting student career and academic interests, Strobing said. “We are going to pay close attention to the data once we really start ramping up our sponsor companies,” Strobing said. The cafe also hopes to partner with sponsor companies that constitute a large part of the U.S. economy in the same way that it does in India. Shiru Cafe in India has several manufacturing corporate sponsors, since manufacturing companies proliferate in the Indian economy, Strobing explained. At the same time, student interests in the United States are very “diverse,” which makes it “quite hard to say now what our core market is going to be,” Strobing added.
While the cafe does not have a set quota of sponsors it hopes to fill, Kakimoto wrote that around “150 sponsors would be a good start.” Maher imagines that “the more sponsors we bring on board, the bigger benefit is for the students,” as sponsors would provide networking and career opportunities to students at the participating universities.“We don’t have that magic number,” Strobing confirmed, adding that the company does not want to “inundate students with too much information, but we want to give them the diversity of companies where they’re receiving information and meeting all the different types of professionals.”
“The market and geographical restraints” in the United States might alter the model of recruiting sponsors from the one used in Japan, Strobing said. The company will continue to “evaluate as we go and be open and flexible in terms of what we think makes the most sense for our students,” Strobing added.
This semester, the cafe has received input from the consulting services of Brown Consulting Club.
Brown Consulting Club was founded last semester, and Shiru Cafe was its first client, wrote BCC Shiru Project Leader Sally Pan ’21 in an email to The Herald. The club provides the service for free, since its objective is to teach students about consulting rather than to make a profit, Pan noted.
BCC reached out to Shiru Cafe last spring “because we were sourcing for our Fall Project,” Pan wrote. The collaboration between Shiru and BCC amounts to “weekly meetings and client calls to present and discuss our deliverables,” Pan wrote. BCC’s research includes “identifying Shiru’s value proposition for potential sponsors, as well as formulating recommendations based on primary and secondary research for the client to consider and implement,” she wrote.
The club will reveal the results of its research in a consultation before the end of the semester, after which the groups’ collaboration will cease. But if Shiru follows up with requests for further assistance, BCC would be “happy to be of help,” Pan added. Pan believes that Shiru has the potential to expand career opportunities for University students, she wrote.
Shiru has not planned any other collaborations with student groups at this time, but Strobing hopes to implement “more systematic options” for student groups to work with the cafe, she added.
Other University organizations have considered opportunities Shiru could provide to students. According to Director of CareerLAB Matthew Donato, CareerLAB has looked into collaboration with Shiru in the past.
“I’ve met with the Shiru managers at least two or three times over the past year just to talk about whether there are opportunities for collaboration or whether there are ways we could share resources. We haven’t really hit on anything that seems like a good fit yet,” he said.
Regardless of the lack of sponsors for Providence’s cafe, Shiru Cafe’s management says the cafe is thriving. “We’ve seen a ton of success engaging with students,” Strobing said, adding that Shiru is planning on constructing even larger physical spaces for future U.S. locations. Providence’s location processes 600 orders per day, and 76 percent of Brown students are registered users, according to the company’s website. The cafe is “at full operating capacity,” Strobing said.
Head Barista Dean Tricarico has been working at Shiru Cafe in Providence for about six months. “I’ve definitely seen business grow,” he said. A larger part of his job description includes “creating more of a professional environment,” he said, which for many students means simply a good place to do homework. “The ultimate goal is to just enhance the next generation that is coming into the workforce,” Tricarico added.
Students have asked questions about data collection and the corporate focus of Shiru Cafe’s business model. “When we first opened, there was a lot of skepticism” from students about a company that asks for their data, Tricarico said. “When you register with us, I really like to describe it as you’re just filling out a kind of sample resume,” he said.
Even as Shiru cafes in the United States work toward offering professional opportunities, the Providence cafe continues to prioritize providing quality space and beverages to its community.
The cafe is “definitely customized to the American coffee culture,” Maher said. The convenience of free coffee and the workspace draws even those students who harbor reservations about the corporate ethos of Shiru Cafe. “Our coffee is such an important part of what we do; our business has to do with students first,” Strobing said.
“Our goal is definitely to be able to contribute positively to the Providence community and to the Brown University community,” Maher said.
While she enjoys the beverages and in particular the study environment, Shiru regular Allison Meakem ’20 remains uncertain about Shiru Cafe’s business model.
“I do think we should be a little skeptical,” Meakem said. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch and here there’s no such thing as a free coffee.”